Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What I Carried: Reading Tim O'Brien in a Combat Zone

Soldiers love to tell stories.  Some of them might even be true.  But not often.

In a combat zone, a person has a lot of time to think.  They think about bullets, rocket-propelled grenades, explosive devices buried shallow alongside the road.  They think about buddies and enemies and girls back home.  But mostly they think about boredom and the stretches of time, barren as deserts, they have on their hands.  If they’re smart, they’ll start thinking about the stories they want to tell when they return home.  Because, inevitably, unavoidably, they will be asked to tell stories.

“What was it really like over there?”
“Did they make you kill anybody?”
“How was the food?  You sleep okay?  Would you go back?  How does it feel to be home?  How was the food?”

The questions will come—brutal, shy, apologetic, angry, and intimate—and a soldier will have no choice but to tell a story.  Even if that story is the safe womb of silence.

There are few better writers spinning war stories than Tim O’Brien.  In his 1990 National Book Critics Circle fiction finalist, The Things They Carried, O’Brien writes about not only the terrain of war, but the very landscape of stories as well.  The Vietnam War veteran finds his material “at the intersection of past and present,” he writes in the short story “Spin.”
Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

In the end, O’Brien writes elsewhere in the book, it may not be possible to tell a true war story—the details are either too awful, or they are cloaked in a kind of secret lingo which only those inside the closed borders of the military community are able to understand.

In his short story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” he describes the ironies and frustrations of being in one of the most story-rich environments, yet not being able to fully express it through the indisputable facts:
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

The Things They Carried, is a brilliant patchwork quilt of lies, truths and grey narratives somewhere in between.

I read it for the first time when I was in Iraq.  In 2005.  At war.  Bombs raining, bullets flying, men cursing.

That’s a lie—not the first part (I really was deployed to Iraq in 2005 with the 3rd Infantry Division), but the second part about bombs and bullets.  I never saw any of that kind of action first-hand.  I spent my entire year in an air-conditioned cubicle, cocooned in safety, engorged on chow hall food and wondering what it was really like beyond the Forward Operating Base’s concertina wire where men and women were, occasionally, caught in rainstorms of bullets.

The closest I got to life-threatening combat that year was in the pages of Tim O’Brien (and Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, and Erich Maria Remarque).  I depended on the lie of fiction to tell me about the truth of war.  I’d go back to my living quarters—my hooch—every night and escape into the comfort of books.  When I came to The Things They Carried, I felt shot through with lightning—especially while reading “How to Tell a True War Story.”  Tim O’Brien cut past all the bullshit and went straight to the heart of what it’s like to be an American at war, describing the indescribable.
In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness. In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.

I went to war as a fiction writer—I’m pretty certain I was the only guy in the division who’d had a short story published in Esquire and who had, at that very moment, the draft of a 300-page novel sitting in a desk drawer back in the States—so I was already in the business of telling lies.  This sometimes came into conflict with my duties in the Army as someone who was required to deliver indisputable facts to the news media on a daily basis.  I worked in a public affairs office which was mere spitting distance from Abu Ghraib prison at the western edge of Baghdad (another hive of lies).  Each day, I reported to my air-conditioned oasis in the Task Force Baghdad headquarters and wrote press releases designed to reassure the rest of the world that, yes, America was kicking terrorism’s ass, thankyouverymuch.

As part of my job, I was surrounded by stories.  Exhausted men coming back from a hard day patrolling neighborhoods.  TV news coverage of smoking craters.  Roadside bombings which left all of us shattered.  Incident reports delivered in dry, all-caps military shorthand over our computer network.  Muted conversation overheard from a neighboring bathroom stall.

A story:

On the day after I finished reading The Things They Carried, a man stepped out of a crowd in downtown Baghdad, raised his AK-47 and pulled the trigger.

Every time soldiers leave the protection and security of the FOB, they are clad in scalp-to-toenail protective gear: helmet, ballistic eyewear, and flak vest whose collar extends to beneath the jawbone, and boots.  For all of the military’s faith in Kevlar, however, naked areas of the body still remain: the cheekbones, the arms and hands, the thighs, legs and feet, the buttocks.  There is also a thin, fateful gap in the flak vest where the front and rear armored plates do not meet.

On this day, the AK-47 bullet entered the body of a U.S. soldier on patrol in that sliver of space between the flak vest plates.  It shattered his rib cage, tunneled through his lungs and finally came to rest, spent and exhausted, against the rear armored plate.

The soldier spurted blood.  He fell to the ground.

The shooter melted back into the crowd and was lost—like a ghost you think you might have seen, but can’t be sure.

I read this report while sitting at my desk, the blood oozing between the all-cap sentences, and even though I was stirred to sadness and anger, I immediately started forming it into a story.  I remembered the lessons Tim O’Brien had taught me.  If I could compartmentalize the images, package them into lyrical, arty sentences, buffer them from the reality of this man’s death, then maybe I could handle the truth.  I wonder if O’Brien did the same, sitting in the jungles of Vietnam, his head and heart a hot broth of anger, sadness, boredom, and frustration.

I like to think his inner fiction writer was already starting to sprout, take root deep inside him—in a place where men fist-fight over a missing jackknife, a guy wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck when out on patrol, and soldiers go about the grim task of pulling a friend’s body parts out of a tree.  Vivid scenes, real and imagined.  Did he already know he’d have to write his way out of this war?

One last story before I go:

I’m on R&R leave, trying to rest and relax on my Army-sanctioned four-day vacation to Qatar.  I carry a book with me everywhere I go because fiction is the only true R&R I’ve ever been able to find this whole year in the combat zone.

I’m on a field trip to the downtown shopping district, browsing through a “Super Export” variety store, looking at the jade eggs and wooden elephants and bundles of peacock feathers, and not seeing anything I couldn’t buy at Pier 1 back in Savannah.  I start for the exit.  The manager comes up to me with one of his salesclerks in tow and says, “How are you today, sir?”

“Fine, thanks.”

“You are interested in feathers?”  He smiles and a gold tooth winks from his brown face.

“No, not really,” I say, my feet still moving toward the door.

He is all smiles and politeness and sweaty sales hustle.  He knows he is losing me, so in quick desperation, he points to the novel I’m holding.  “Can I see your book, sir?”

“Sure.”  I hand it over and he holds it up.

“Yes, yes,” he says.  “This is a good book.  Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brain.”

I swallow a laugh before it can escape.

He is looking significantly at his salesclerk, then back to me, smiling so hard I think his teeth will break.   “I read this book when I was at school in Saudi Arabia.  It’s very, very good, sir.  All about men looking for a cacciato.”  The way he pronounces the word makes it sound like a foreign food.

He hands back the book and without another word, I nod at him and leave quickly.  I’m a little pissed off because I know for a fact that liar has never read one fucking word of Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam War and the search for AWOL Private Cacciato.  But then, before I’ve gone another twenty paces, I start to laugh to myself.  That shopkeeper lied, fabricated a story on the spot, because it was the only path he found out of his embarrassment over not being able to sell me peacock feathers.

I think Tim O’Brain would have approved.

A version of this essay originally appeared at the National Book Critics Circle blog Critical Mass.


  1. This essay is such a beautiful weaving of both authors. Thank you.

  2. This is a great piece. As a side note, I read Going After Cacciato for the first time when I was in Iraq in 05-06. It was a life-changing book, made all the more important by the context I read it in. I ended up writing a large chunk of MA thesis about it in 2010.